Education secretary David Blunkett calls it the learning age an age of individual learning accounts, a University for Industry, 500,000 more people in higher education, better quality university teaching, and cash for unions to develop learning at work.
Launching the Government’s vision of lifelong learning for all last month, Blunkett said the aim was to raise standards and improve access to education for everyone over 16.
His plans are ambitious. There will be places for an extra 500,000 people in higher education by 2002. An Institute for Learning and Teaching is to be set up to raise the quality of university teaching. A new Adult and Community Learning Fund aims to boost basic adult literacy and numeracy.
Individual learning accounts will help people save towards learning, with a smart card to record the funds in an account and keep track of their educational progress.
But the centrepiece of the proposals, outlined in the green paper, The learning age, is the University for Industry. The idea is to use modern information technology to make education and training available in the workplace, in special learning centres and in the home.
‘It is a wholly new kind of Government intervention to bring learning opportunities right to the centre of people’s lives,’ says Gerry Holman, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, which has set up a University for Industry pilot project at the University of Sunderland.
The proposals in the green paper have been generally welcomed by industry, unions and educators alike, although with some reservations.
‘Engineering companies are very excited about the University for Industry,’ says Ann Bailey, head of education and training affairs at the engineering employers’ body, the EEF.
The EEF ‘strongly supports the proposal’, and believes that this will be a catalyst for connecting businesses and individuals to cost-effective training. ‘It should provide quality training to the private sector and not just initial training.’
Access to learning could be in all sorts of places, Bailey suggests. Small firms without facilities, for instance, could get access to learning programmes through larger companies.
‘We have been asking members how they see this working,’ she says. ‘They envisage people working together with consultation, and joint responsibility between national training organisations and trades unions.’ Bailey suggests there could be a ‘kite mark’ to denote quality.
The unions are enthusiastic about the £2m Employee Education Development fund, but have reservations about the University for Industry.
John Monks, TUC general secretary, says: ‘The fund for trade unions recognises the contribution unions are making to learning through training partnerships between unions and employers.’
Under the fund, the Government will seek bids from unions to develop workplace learning projects. And the TUC, under Jimmy Knapp, has set up a learning services group to look at how unions can act as providers of lifelong learning.
Although the TUC has welcomed the University for Industry as ‘an interesting concept,’ there is still a lot of detail to be worked out, it cautions.
‘University may be a misnomer,’ says Sara Perman, policy officer at the TUC. ‘People will be using a range of institutions, with funding shared by employers, individuals and the state.’
One key factor in its success will be to ensure employers participate, says Perman. ‘This will depend on whether employers think it adds value. It may mean schemes need to be customised.’
And there may be a different emphasis on the type of provision favoured by employers and employees, Perman warns.
‘Employers are interested in job skills. Employees are interested in long-term skills. This makes joint sector approaches and joint workplace partnerships all the more important.’
On the tricky question of who pays for lifelong learning, the TUC believes that employers should finance job-related training, and individuals should pay for their wider personal development.
It says the Government may need to subsidise the programme to set up the infrastructure. ‘The money needs to be directed to people who wouldn’t normally participate,’ says Perman.
The education sector has also given a guarded welcome to Blunkett’s proposals. But it is concerned about the level of resources the Government has allocated to cope with the new demand.
‘The ability to maintain the high quality of delivery depends on the outcome of the Government’s spending review,’ says the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of Universities of the United Kingdom (CVCP).
And the CVCP will be making a strong case to Government for additional resources, says Martin Harris, its chairman,.
The Government’s proposals are now being circulated for consultation. The conclusions will be delivered in July when any decisions on additional investment will be announced as part of the spending review.